Dear Captain Awkward,
One year ago my father passed away. It was a several year battle against cancer that he eventually lost, and I still miss him deeply.
My mother has struggled in the aftermath. She has been overwhelmed with loneliness and sank into a depression. She loved my father deeply and he was her rock, both emotionally and in a more practical sense (bills, caretaking, house upkeep).
Lately she has struggled more deeply because a chronic pain issue flared up. She has been to numerous doctor appointments, tried multiple medications and treatments, with no improvements. The medications make her groggy and confused, and she has been having trouble sleeping on top of everything. It seems like her life is a waking nightmare.
I love my mom very much, but I am struggling with how to help her. I am an only child, and we have few extended family members – none she feels she can rely on. She has friendships, but does not trust her friends easily/well and has withdrawn lately because she is too exhausted to reach out. She usually rejects the idea of outside/paid help and feels very vulnerable.
My relationship with her has always had some tension. She is a wonderful mom and a caring person, but our personalities have always clashed. She has always needed more from me than I felt capable of giving, but that need has grown immense and my ability to help her has, if anything, decreased. My own life has been challenging – a stressful new job, a wonderful-but-complicated marriage, and grieving for my father.
I try to visit as often as I feel can, have offered help in various forms, but visits are filled with her lamenting that she doesn’t have anyone to help, and my offers of help are turned down more often than not because they aren’t the right ‘kind’ of help (she has rigid parameters and a deep need for control). Her control issues are also triggering for me, because control issues are something that I struggle with as well.
I have always found visits with my mom draining, and even more so now in this acute time. Every interaction with my mother has the ability to send me into my own tailspin, but setting boundaries makes me feel incredibly guilty in the face of her deep need – and the fact that she is a good person and mother.
How can I navigate this tricky balance? How can I help my mom without losing myself in her bottomless pit of need? How can I maintain my own mental health without feeling like the worst daughter ever?
I’m so sorry for your loss. This is difficult stuff, and involves big upheaval and changing roles in your mom’s life and your own.
The first thing I suggest is enlisting Team You. Your own mental health professional, if you think that would be useful. Your spouse. Your friends. Can they support you in carving out time for your mom, by picking up the slack somewhere else, planning some kind of treat to welcome you home after your visits with her (alone time + food you did not have to think about or do anything to acquire is a treat), by doing some of the errands and grunt work (like, maybe once a month you and spouse both go and see her for a few hours)? You’re grieving, too, you need care and self-care, too. Right now, put a vacation on the calendar for sometime in the next 6 months, even if it’s just a long weekend away. Schedule doctor’s checkups for you, regular haircuts for you, the odd massage or other self-care pampering thing for you. If you can afford to, automate/outsource some of the tasks in your life that stress you out and feel like drudgery. Your mom won’t hire a housecleaner? Cool, maybe you and spouse should hire one for yourselves.
The next thing I suggest is that you budget your time and energy into a regular, predictable schedule of visits to your mom. Whether it’s every week or every month, turn “as often as I can” into a rock solid routine that both you and your mom can count on. Do the same for phone calls. This is self-care for you and care for her. You can keep the wheels on your own life and better maintain your own energy levels if you have permission to save your “mom stuff” up for certain windows of time. You can use it to redirect her and to gently maintain boundaries, i.e. “Is this an emergency, or can we handle it when I see you on Saturday?” or “Mom, I can’t talk now, but email me a list of what you need and I’ll pick it up and bring it when I come on Saturday.” Be conservative when you set up this schedule, especially at first. Maybe you can be more relaxed and present for her during those times you do see her if you feel a sense of control about when they happen, maybe over time she can relax a bit knowing that she’ll have regular contact with you.
The third thing I suggest is that you try to make some of your visits, or some part of your visits, about pleasure. Balance “let’s sort out your bills and get them in the mail” and “let’s get some individual portions of meals put up for you to eat all week” with things like:
- “Let’s see a movie.”
- “Let’s go get our hair/nails done.”
- “Let’s go out to breakfast today.”
- “Let’s watch a show we both like.”
- “There’s a free concert in the park, let’s go by for a little while.”
- “I bought some flowers, let’s go to the cemetery and plant them.”
I realize that her health issues might make some of this stuff difficult, so go very slow and use your judgment about what specific things to try and how to prioritize fun vs. necessary help, but try to find some pleasant activities that pull your mom out of herself and get her out of the house. If it’s spring where you are, the coming months are likely to be filled with lots of free local events, so see if you can find out what’s around. Free is great for many reasons, not least because you won’t feel bad going for just a little while or leaving if she gets too tired. Anything you can do to make new, positive memories with her and find new, positive things you have in common with her is going to help both of you. Additionally, scheduling fun things might be a great face-saving way to get her some of the help she needs in the short term. “Let me swing by and take you to brunch. Oh, since I’m here, why don’t I (make a grocery list)(throw that load of laundry in)(water the plants).”
You say she’s been withdrawing from friends, so maybe something nice you could do soon is to pick up a cake and make some coffee and ask her to invite her friends over for a few hours so that she gets to see them with minimal effort for her. She can show off her daughter, you can get to know her friends a little bit, which can help you plant the seeds of “Mom is still grieving and has trouble initiating plans right now, but I’m sure she’d love it if you invited her over or found a time to stop by, btw do you know anyone local who is good at yard work?” with them. I’ll bet that one of her friends is the Alsatian of the group, and that person can be a powerful ally for you in drawing your mom back to herself. If she’s a member of a church, call in the visiting/helping cavalry. (Note to self: Invent some kind of church substitute for atheists that will be as good at visiting the sick & taking care of older people as churches are.)
Also, if you can, ask for your mom’s input and advice (on safe topics)(for you). “Mom, we’re thinking of repainting our living room, what do you think of these paint chips?” “Mom, I think we should scan all the family photos and back them up. Sit with me and tell me who these people are!” “Mom, I want to grow tomatoes this year but I don’t know how. What should I get?” “Mom, work is sending me to this neat conference. You and dad spent time in (city), what was it like? Where should I eat?” She’s a person with something to give, and not a project, so see if you can remind her of that. She’s also the person who misses your dad as much as you do, so don’t be afraid to ask her about him. “What was it like the first time you saw Dad? What was he wearing/what did he look like?” “When did you know he was the one for you?” “What’s something he did that really annoyed the crap out of you?” There’s no more ‘upset’ that y’all can get, so don’t avoid the topic of him out of fear of upsetting her.
Your mom probably wants (and might genuinely need) more time and more care than you can put into the time you budget for her, and that’s where outside help can come in, from hiring a housecleaner, using a grocery-delivery service or Meals-On-Wheels (if it’s available where you are), or helping her access a home health aide. This is very income- and location- dependent, so I can’t make more specific recommendations for your situation, but maybe you can research what’s available for her and what you might need to do to help her apply for disability benefits or access home health care. What kind of support groups for grieving spouses exist, what kind of support groups for people with her medical conditions are out there? Again, depending on where you are, a social worker may be able to guide you. You say that she’s resistant to accepting outside help right now, so this might not immediately change anything, but having an accurate picture of what’s available may help and comfort you: You’re not alone, you don’t have to do it all yourself, and there are very likely some options that can make her life easier if you can persuade her to accept them.
Now we come to the moment of reckoning: You might have to have some frank conversations with your mom about time, about money, about health, about plans for the future. One of those conversations is: “Mom, you have been saying that you need help. I’ve researched some options that might help you be more comfortable and cared for in daily life, but before I spring 10,000 suggestions on you, can you tell me what ‘more help’ looks like to you? What kind of help do you think would actually help? Can we brainstorm a list?” or “You say you need more help, but you categorically turn down every suggestion I make for things that might help. That leaves you without what you need, and me at a loss about what to do. Can you think about it this week, and when I come next week can we sit down and really hash out some concrete steps?”
She’s foggy, depressed, in pain, and discouraged, so, yeah, it’s unlikely that she’ll have a list of tasks all ready to go. You really can help her by facilitating a list of things that need to be done daily, weekly, and monthly, and helping her prioritize those.
You may have luck with baby steps and starting with very small, practical things. What if a cleaning person came once, and gave the house a deep clean, before her friends come over? What if the first time the cleaner came, you stayed at the house with the cleaner while your spouse took your mom to lunch, so she didn’t have to be alone with a stranger? What if a cleaning person came every month? What if she could summon groceries to the house? Can her local friends recommend trusted resources? Is there a neighbor kid who could be paid to run errands and mow the lawn or sit with her when outside helpers come (I used to be that kid for some of my neighbors). Her need for control and resistance to outside help might wear down slowly in the face of convenience and improved quality of life from actually receiving help.
The elephant in the room here is that what she wants might very well be “I shouldn’t need strangers to do that when you’re my daughter”/”Isn’t it obvious? You should move home/come every single day and you should do all of that for me.” The, uh, “bottomless pit of need” phrase in your question tells me that this is a high possibility, and indicates that one of your conversations is going to have to be:
“I know you wish I could be here doing all of this, but I need to tell you straight up: I cannot. I will visit you and call you every (set time period), I will love the hell out of you, but I cannot step in as your grocery-shopper/errand runner/bath giver/med reminder/housecleaner. Caring about you is my job as your daughter, but caring for all of your needs in the daily sense is an actual job, and one that I know that I can’t take on. Please let me help you set up some services for yourself so that you can be taken care of the way you need and deserve.“
That conversation will play on every heartstring and guilt-string that you have, especially the culturally installed ones that say that daughters are selfless and must give everything to their families, and I do not envy you one bit. She’s got her own strings grinding away, and I don’t envy her those, either. Think of how much pride you’d have to swallow to ask someone to take care of you like that, think of how desperate it must feel to need someone else that much, and try to forgive her for not coming out and asking for it. The longer she goes without asking directly, the longer she can pretend that she doesn’t need the help and the longer she can pretend that you might say yes to everything.
If things get sour between you during a visit, the best thing you can do is to approach the next visit like a fresh start. This can feel like the hardest thing in the world to do, but it is one of the most gentle and loving things you can do for someone who is suffering and who is experiencing a lot of need and shame around that suffering. Be gentle with her, be gentle with yourself, and give it lots of time.